The Moment You Make Eye Contact: A Visit to an Elephant Preserve

There are so many things people can experience that defy description: discovering your soul mate, seeing your child for the first time, getting your degree, reaching the summit of the mountain. At times like those, we may experience the sensation of fully landing in that moment and just allowing ourselves to be. It’s as if time stops or slows down and we savor every detail of the moment—the feelings, the smells, the sounds…every sense is heightened. We take a deep breath, and with that breath we may realize how connected we truly are with our world and the things and beings in it.

A view of an elephant's eye.

For me, experiences that produce this effect have always involved nature. Seeing the birth of an animal, riding a horse as it gallops across a field, holding a puppy, watching a bird build its nest, each of these fills me with wonder. But one experience I rarely get to indulge in involves my love for elephants. In my travels, I recently visited a preserve where elephants were the star attraction, and for me it was magical.

Looking into the eyes of an elephant is to peer into an old soul. The moment I make eye contact, there’s a feeling of connecting with an ancient wisdom, with a fellow-creature that understands what life is all about. Pain, sensitivity, strength, family values, tenacity, hope, and a search for moments of joy all shine out of those deep, clear amber orbs. And their many sounds or vocalizations add to their mystique. From clicks and barks that are almost dog-like to low rumbling sounds that literally vibrate through the human body, elephants have a lot to say.

Elephants can live for up to seventy years and are not only the largest land mammals, but they are also the only ones that grieve for their family members as humans do. They shed tears when they are upset and trumpet with joy when they are having a good time, such as when they are swimming or cavorting in the water.

It’s not easy being an elephant: both African and Asian elephants have such reduced environments that it’s difficult for them to find enough to eat. It can take them 16 to 18 hours or more every day to forage for the 200-500 pounds of leaves, roots, stems, bark, grass, and fruit that they need to survive. On top of all that, an elephant needs about 50 gallons of water a day, which is not always easy to find.

Close up view of an elephant mouth about to bite into a carrot.

Their trunk—which has no bones but instead contains over 40,000 different muscles which are divided into 150,000 muscle units—isn’t a straw to drink through. Elephants drink by filling their trunks partway with water and then spraying that water into their mouth. In contrast to the elephant’s muscular trunk, the entire human body contains only 639 muscles. The elephant’s trunk is sensitive enough to pick up a dime, yet strong enough to uproot and move an entire tree when necessary. Elephants also use their trunks as an expressive means of communicating with their young and their fellow herd members. Elephants are very contact-driven; they touch each other a lot to comfort, soothe, and communicate with one another.

Two elephants caress each other with their trunks, filling their need for physical contact.

If you’ve never had the privilege of touching an elephant, allow me to share my experience. Their skin is about an inch thick, warm to the touch, highly textured, and yet sensitive. Elephants are covered with wiry hair, literally the texture of a wire brush, and have eyelashes that are over two inches long. The elephants I interacted with loved being given a bath, brushed with a scrub brush, and scratched. They were very patient and even seemed indulgent as those of us in the group interacted with them, and they often closed their eyes as the contact from their human groomers felt pleasant to them. Elephants know how to live in the moment, which is always a good reminder for humans living our relentlessly fast-paced lives.

Front view of an elephant twirling a hula hoop around his trunk.

Elephants are fiercely loyal and communal. Herds are comprised of females and young males. Mature males live a mostly solitary life, but the females are together constantly, and all take part in nurturing the young of the herd. The oldest and largest female in the herd is the matriarch, and it is her responsibility to make major decisions for the herd (usually about 6-12 elephants), know where the food and water needed for the day will come from, watch for the safety of the herd, and teach young cows how to care for their young.

One of the many lessons elephants can teach us is the value of matriarchs. In this part of the world, older people, particularly women, are often marginalized and even isolated and neglected. But they have so much value as human beings, and so much to teach us!

View of a 58-year-old elephant matriarch.

My grandmother and great aunt had a significant, positive impact on my early life that stays with me to this day. How much could you and your family learn from an older person in your family or community? Spending time together will reveal the wealth of wisdom and life perspective provided by such precious elders, as well as bring great joy and connection to those who might otherwise be isolated. Looking into their eyes, their soul, and making a meaningful connection is something you’ll never forget.

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